Stay Calm…Take a Deep Breath
Suspecting your loved one may have a alcohol or drug problem can be very difficult for the whole family.
Step one is to determine if this is indeed the case. On this page, you will find tips and strategies to identify, intervene and support your loved one. The key is to stay calm throughout this process, and remember that the choices your loved one makes are their responsibility, not yours.
If they are using, it is not your fault. Try not to blame yourself for their choices. They are going to need lots of love and support – save your energy on what comes next, not dwelling on the past.
In the early stages of drug use, a person will generally try to hide these signs. Drug abusers often try to conceal their symptoms and downplay or minimize the problem. Very quickly, the power of choice leaves the individual and the drugs take control. Day or night, their life revolves around drug use – when can they use again, where are they going to get it, or how they can avoid withdrawal.
While it is important to know what drug someone is using, it is more important to also know why they are using.
Identifying the “Red Flags”
Legal or illegal, there are many addictive substances out there preying on youth. Focusing your attention on educating yourself on latest drug trends, signs and symptoms of use, and maintaining a strong relationship with the teens and young adults in your life can help you determine if your loved one really does have a problem.
Now, though early experimentation with drugs doesn’t automatically lead to drug abuse, it IS a significant factor for developing more serious drug abuse and addiction in the future. Times of transition or upheaval – such as changing schools, moving, illness, death of a loved one, or divorce – are also a major red flags.
How we cope with the negative events in our lives can influence the choices we make which is why having strong relationships with adults is so important. For more information on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Trauma Informed Care visit the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund
The most common indicators that a person is using or abusing drugs fall within three categories: physical, emotional and behavioral. If you’re worried that a friend or family member might be abusing drugs, look for the following warning signs:
While some of these “symptoms” can be tied to drug use, they may also indicate other medical or mental conditions. Contact your health care provider with concerns.
- Bloodshot eyes (using eye drops to try to mask the red eye) and dilated or severely constricted pupils (depending on the drug used)
- “Tracks” or injection marks that can not be explained
- Runny nose or chronic sniffling (inhaling or snorting)
- Loss of appetite, along with sudden weight loss or gain
- Noticeable change in skin tone or color (puffy face, itching, & grey/ashen or flushed skin)
- Paint or unusual residue around mouth or nose
- Changes in sleep patterns (insomnia or not able to get out of bed)
- Deterioration of physical appearance (poor hygiene, unkempt, dirty clothes)
- Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
- Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
- Unable to account for time (blackouts) or loss of short term memory
Parents – you KNOW your children. Look into their eyes. Listen to how they are speaking. Watch how are they walking. Give them a hug & a smell!
- Lose interest in favorite activities or hobbies
- Don’t care or overly concerned (apathy) about things they used to feel strongly about
- Defensiveness and extreme sensitivity – especially when you bring up the topic of their using
- Unusual aggressiveness or quick to “blow up” either verbally or physically
- Sudden or frequent mood changes. For example, someone who is usually pleasant and upbeat may become depressed and sullen or someone who is normally quiet and calm may become hyper and easily excited.
- Unexplained change in personality or attitude – fearful, anxious, or paranoid with no reason
- Lack of motivation – appears lethargic or “spaced out”
Ask yourself: Are the symptoms from using drugs or are the drugs masking other mental health concerns?
- Loss of pride in personal appearance/hygiene or accomplishments/talents
- Change in friends, hangouts and activities that might better accommodate drug use
- Being very secretive or isolating themselves from others – spending more time alone behind locked doors
- Poor work, home or school attendance and performance (e.g. flunking classes, skipping work, neglecting responsibilities)
- Change in daily routine (coming home late or leaving unusually early) or needing to leave the house for short periods of time multiple times a day
- Change in sleep habits; staying up unusually late or sleeping more than usual; staying up for long periods of time, followed by excessive sleep.
- Unexplained need for money or financial problems – may borrow or steal to get it
- Missing prescriptions, alcohol, “huffing” materials or other substances of abuse
- Avoids conversations about drugs, unless with using companions.
- Using drugs under dangerous conditions or taking risks while high, such as driving impaired, using dirty needles, or having unprotected sex
- Legal trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, fights, accidents, driving under the influence, or stealing to support a drug habit
- Unexplained injuries – if he or she can’t or doesn’t want to tell you how they got hurt, it may be that they had an accident while drunk, high, or stoned
- Drug use is causing problems in their relationships, such as fights with their partner, family members, employer, or friends
- Lying or deception – “that is not my drug… I was just holding it for a friend” or avoiding the conversation all together (unless it is with their “using friends”)
Pay attention. You are the original anti-drug!
The challenge – distinguishing between the normal (and often turbulent) ups and downs of the teen years and the red flags of substance abuse.
When to consult your doctor…
Abusing alcohol and drugs can impact a users physical health and well-being. Expressing concern may be the window of opportunity to suggest a visit to a medical provider – who can not only offer their advice and assess your loved one, but also serve as a confidant.
- Frequent nosebleeds (Excessive nosebleeds could be a sign of snorted drugs)
- Repeated sickness
- Queasy, nauseous
- Seizures (Hallucinogen research)
- Sores, spots around mouth
- Skin abrasions/bruises
- Withdrawal symptoms; headaches, excessive sweating, bone or body aches, shakiness
- “Cravings” or preoccupation with attaining the drug
- Excessive dry mouth (known as “cotton mouth”)
- Bloating in mid-section/stomach area
- Chemical psychosis
Repeated Use Can Alter the Way the Brain Looks and Functions…permanently
- Taking a recreational drug causes a surge in levels of dopamine triggering feelings of pleasure, which the brain remembers and wants repeated (contributing to cravings)
- No matter which substance is abused, addiction can overtake the desire to achieving all other basic needs (such as food) and grows more important than anything else, including family, friends, career, and even their own health and happiness
- Changes in the brain interfere with the ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control behavior and impulses, and feel normal (homeostasis)
- The urge to use is so strong that your mind finds many ways to deny or rationalize the addiction; you may drastically underestimate the quantity of drugs you’re taking, how much it impacts your life, and the level of control you have over your drug use.
Warning Signs of Commonly Abused Drugs
- Marijuana: Glassy, red eyes; loud talking, inappropriate laughter; sleepiness; loss of interest, motivation; weight gain or loss
- Depressants (including Xanax, Valium, GHB): Contracted pupils; drunk-like; difficulty concentrating; clumsiness; poor judgment; slurred speech; sleepiness
- Stimulants (including amphetamines, cocaine, and crystal meth): Dilated pupils; hyperactivity; euphoria; irritability; anxiety; excessive talking; depression or excessive sleeping at odd times; may go long periods of time without eating or sleeping; weight loss; dry mouth and nose
- Inhalants (glues, aerosols, vapors): Watery eyes; impaired vision, memory and thought; secretions from the nose or rashes around the nose and mouth; headaches and nausea; appearance of intoxication; drowsiness; poor muscle control; changes in appetite; anxiety; irritability; lots of cans/aerosols in the trash
- Hallucinogens (LSD, PCP): Dilated pupils; bizarre and irrational behavior including paranoia, aggression, hallucinations; mood swings; detachment from people; absorption with self or other objects, slurred speech; confusion
- Heroin: Contracted pupils; no response of pupils to light; needle marks; sleeping at unusual times; sweating; vomiting; coughing, sniffling; twitching; loss of appetite
When a Loved One Has a Drug Problem
Addictions do not just impact the individual – everyone who is connected to them is also impacted. It’s important to have all members of the family need to be on the same page to be able to support them in their recovery. If you suspect that a friend or family member has a drug problem, here are a few things you can do:
- Speak up. Talk to the person about your concerns, and offer your help and support, without being judgmental. The earlier addiction is treated, the better. Don’t wait for your loved one to hit bottom! Be prepared for excuses and denial by listing specific examples of your loved one’s behavior that has you worried.
- Take care of yourself. Don’t get so caught up in their drug problem that you neglect your own needs. Make sure you have people you can talk to and lean on for support. And stay safe. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations.
- Avoid self-blame. You can support a person with a substance abuse problem and encourage treatment, but you cannot force them to change. You cannot control your loved one’s decisions or make their choices for them. Let the person accept responsibility for his or her actions, an essential step along the way to recovery for drug addiction.
Avoid the following…
- Attempt to punish, threaten, bribe, or preach
- Try to be a martyr; avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to use drugs
- Cover up or make excuses for the drug abuser, or shield them from the negative consequences of their behavior
- Take over their responsibilities, leaving them with no sense of importance or dignity
- Hide or throw out drugs
- Argue with the person when they are high
- Take drugs with the drug abuser
- Feel guilty or responsible for their behavior